A global destination for heritage, culture and nature: Saudi Arabia unveils $15 billion AlUla master plan

Saudi Arabia has presented the master plan for its massive cultural project at AlUla. It details an ambitious program of archaeological research and conservation “to protect, preserve and sustainably rejuvenate” one of the world’s oldest and largest cultural landscapes.


Spanish archaeologist Jose Ignacio Gallego Revilla, executive director of archaeology, heritage research and conservation at AlUla, said the plan will focus on “15 new cultural properties, including galleries, museums and educational centers,” spanning a 20-kilometer stretch. And the involvement of partnerships with scientific institutes and museums around the world.


Revilla has an exclusive account The Art Journal that, when the legal framework is established, an international competition will be launched in April 2022 to select an architect for the Kingdoms Institute, an international center for archaeological and conservation studies. It will be “a world-class institution dedicated to the study of the Arabian Peninsula’s history since prehistory,” he says, adding that the goal is to open the facility in 2024 or 2025.


Titled “Journey Through Time,” the master plan “will drive the cultural and heritage project that will lay the foundation for the total transformation of the region,” says Revilla, referring to the country’s grand plan launched under Vision 2030 to transform AlUla into “a global destination for heritage, culture and nature.”


Although the cultural master plan does not include details on funding, the province’s development figures were announced under the leadership of Prince Badr, minister of culture and governor of the province. Arabic news by Amr AlMadani, executive director of the Royal Commission of AlUla. The entire project, which is expected to be completed in three stages between 2023, 2030 and 2035, is now budgeted at $15 billion; $2 billion has been invested in seed funding, including airport upgrades, and an additional $3.2 billion has been earmarked for the completion of priority infrastructure in 2023, including the first half of a 46-km streetcar network and water supply improvements. In April 2018, the kingdom signed a “historic” 10-year cooperation plan with France to promote cultural and tourism infrastructure in the region.


“The Kingdoms Institute will be the cultural knowledge center par excellence in the Arab world, recalibrating the history of Arabia and helping to reshape the future of a nation that can trace its origins for millennia,” says Jean-François Charnier, scientific director. Of the French agency for the development of AlUla.


About 160 scientists have already signed up for the project. Revilla says the program was suspended in part because of the Covid crisis, which prevented foreign scholars from traveling, but money was never an issue: “the budgets are there, they were always there, and now we can expect to be fully operational.”


More than 15 archaeological excavations and research projects are underway. Most of the French researchers are involved, but British, Australian and German teams are also in the field, excavating in areas ranging from the Dadan sanctuaries to the Nabatean monuments of Hegra, a World Heritage Site. New discoveries have just been published of hundreds of rectangular ruins, called mustatils, which contain animal bones; an indication that these 7,000-year-old objects were sacred monuments. An aerial survey of the 30,000 ancient and historic sites in the 22,500 square kilometer region is underway.


The “Journey Through Time” master plan focuses on the old city of AlUla and the “Cultural Oasis,” where archaeological, anthropological, botanical and genetic research is being conducted on ancient architecture, agriculture and water resources. “This data could serve current agricultural and hydrological systems, conservation and building architecture, and help save the oasis at the center of the destination,” said Charnier, adding, “Saudi Arabia is implementing a unique project that puts culture and science at the forefront. Of ecotourism and human development.”


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